Each year, autumn brings a cool breeze, color-changing leaves, and for many, a much-anticipated apple harvest. Due to an ideal growing climate, unique varieties and high quality standards, Wisconsin apples are second to none. This week, I stopped by Helene’s Hilltop Orchard, LLC in Merrill to learn about caring for apple trees, harvesting apples, and making farm-fresh apple cider.
Following in the footsteps of her parents, Olivia, along with her husband Mark, own and operate Helene’s Hilltop Orchard. Their orchard is home to 33 varieties of apple trees, as well as a pumpkin patch, an adventure barnyard, and a farm store filled with the scent of countless apple bakery items. Around every corner, Olivia and Mark’s passion for Wisconsin agriculture shines bright.
Out in the orchard, Olivia shared how they care for their trees all year-round. Recently, their farm has embraced a new method for planting and growing apple trees. The new method utilizes a trellis, similar to a grape vine, to stabilize the baby trees after transplant. They planted several new, smaller varieties on the trellises, allowing the trees to be spaced closer together. Additionally, they have cut back on mowing the natural grass between the rows of their trees. Leaving the grass long prevents detrimental insects from laying their eggs, as they prefer short, manicured grass to reproduce in. This natural barrier reduces insect damage on the trees.
Harvesting their apples begins in late August, and typically runs through October. Of all their trees, about 60% are dedicated for visiting apple pickers. The remaining 40% are hand-picked by farm employees, and are sold in the store in various forms. Their farm store offers four varieties of fresh pre-picked apples: Red Cortland, Red McIntosh, Honeycrisp, and RiverBelle. The RiverBelle apple is a relatively new variety, developed in Holmen, Wisconsin. This apple is similar to Honeycrisp, but has a more intense flavor. Of all four apples above, I enjoyed the RiverBelle the best!
The farm bakery at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard began with only apple pies. Today, they make three versions of apple pie, applesauce, apple cinnamon bread, apple cider doughnuts, and many more apple treats. But what intrigued me most was their fresh, homemade apple cider.
Each Tuesday, fresh apple cider is made for the farm store. To make their apple cider, they first chop up the apples. Chopping the apples releases tannins from the fruit, adding more flavor to the final product. An average of five varieties of apples are chopped and used to make one batch of cider. This mixture of apple varieties differentiates a cider from an apple juice. Often, apple juice is made using just one variety of apple. Once chopped, the apples will be squeezed in a press, creating the cider. You can stop by their store for just a cup of cider, or for a half-gallon or gallon to take home and share. My advice? Pour a glass of cider in a mug, heat it up in the microwave for two minutes, and enjoy. Mmmmm!
The next time you are in Merrill, or passing by on your way up north, stop by and visit Mark and Olivia. Their orchard truly highlights the best of Wisconsin agriculture and the Wisconsin apple community.